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Is It Really a Sport?

by Jon Stonger on 27 July 2009

Slovenia's Adela Shajn competes on the floor during the apparatus finals at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup in Moscow May 30, 2009.

A few days ago, I heard someone describe poker as a sport. Don’t get me wrong; I love playing cards (my opponents generally appreciate it as well), and there certainly is a lot of skill and intense competition in Texas Hold ‘Em. Yet calling this activity a sport places it in the same category as, say, basketball, and anyone who has played either knows that there is a vast difference between these two activities. For example, I only embarrass my self once in a while playing cards, and I almost never pass out from exhaustion. Basketball, not so much.

That got me thinking. What makes something a sport? I tinkered with it for a while, and here is my proposed definition.

A sport is a direct, athletic competition.

This definition has some interesting implications. For example, according to this, golf is not a sport. Neither is figure skating or gymnastics. Boxing a sport only sometimes. The big popular sports of football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and yes, even soccer, all qualify as sports. Although this definition will but deeply into ESPN’s programming lineup, it does prevent the use of the word to describe just any activity that involves skill or competition.

Let’s examine each part of the definition.

Direct

This means that in order for something to qualify as a sport, there must be an objective way of determining who wins. Furthermore, the method of determining the victor should be available to the casual observer. Most sports accomplish this by having a score or keeping time. In football, or baseball, or soccer, you can immediately tell who won by looking at the score. Aha! That team has more points, so they win.

This also works in a race, whether it’s a hundred meter dash or a marathon. That guy got to the finish line first, so he wins.

Events like figure skating or gymnastics require tremendous athletic ability, but they lack an objective method for determining a winner. Instead, they have a panel of judges. This presents several problems. The judges are often biased, and prone to error. In addition, a fan watching the competition cannot tell who won, until the judges decide for him. Reasonable people can disagree about who won the contest. If an event is subject to judging, it becomes a matter of opinion or preference, which is antithetical to the idea of competition.

This brings up an interesting point about boxing. Sometimes boxing has a very direct method of determining the victor. One guy is still standing at the end, and the other guy isn’t. The one still standing wins. There’s no argument, no disagreement about who won, and any casual observer can look and immediately know who was victorious.  On the other hand, boxing often comes down to a decision by a panel of judges. The judges often do not agree, and have very different scores. There have been many times where I have watched a match, thinking that one fighter one because he punched his opponent harder and more often, only to have the judges award the bout to the other fighter based on scoring.

I am not fond of ties. The idea of a competition is to have a winner and a loser. That said, there are rare occasions where the two competitors are even enough that it is impossible to determine a victor. A tie is still an objective measure, just not one that adheres to the nature of competition. An occasional tie doesn’t disqualify a sport, but it’s not something they should be proud of.

Having a competition means having a clear winner and loser. If the winner is determined subjectively, it becomes a popularity contest, not a sport.

Athletic

There are several games that have the opposite problem from figure skating and gymnastics. These are games that have an objective measure for determining a winner, but don’t require a great deal of athleticism to play. To me, athleticism involves speed, strength, endurance or agility, and usually involves running, jumping, throwing or lifting.

There are some simple examples. Poker, chess, and video games all take skill, and it is very clear who wins and loses. However, they don’t take any kind of athletic talent or exertion whatsoever. Therefore, they are not sports (although chess boxing definitely is).

Almost everyone would agree that figure skating and gymnastics are athletic, and poker and chess are not. There are other games that fall into a gray area. Games like bowling and pool require physical skill, but there is not a lot of physical exertion, so they are not sports.

Golf is tricky. The players have to walk, which is exercise, and they swing a club, which is a kind of physical exertion, but can the activities of a golfer really be put in the same realm as a football, soccer or basketball player? I don’t have a perfect definition of what is or is not athletic competition, but I do have a few rules of thumb. First, if I can play a game without getting tired or hurting myself, it is probably not very athletic, considering I can run for maybe 3 minutes before I keel over. Secondly, if my grandmother can play it, it’s probably not athletic, and she loves to golf.

Accordingly, golf is out. It is not a sport simply because it does not require sufficient athleticism.

Similarly games based on eating and drinking are excluded, since chugging a beer is not an athletic gift, even though I have heard suggestions that there should be scholarships for it.

Horse racing is a sport–for the horses. They’re the ones doing most of the work. Ditto for dog races, and I suppose, cock fights. If this bothers anyone, I suppose we could include ‘human’ in the definition, but this would leave out the aliens and their scintillating game of Zarfleball.

Competition

This almost goes without saying, but for it to be a sport, there has to be a winner and a loser. I’ve heard people describe surfing or snowboarding as sports. If there’s a race or a tournament (with objective criteria) then it’s a sport, but just going out surfing with your friends is not a sport. There’s no competition to it, so it doesn’t count.

On the other hand, if you and a friend decide to have a competition to see who can hop the farthest on one leg while wearing high heels, that is a sport, albeit a very silly one. It is a direct athletic competition. There is an objective method to determine who wins, it requires agility and endurance, and there is a winner and loser. It fits the definition.

Conclusion

Saying something is or is not a sport is not a value judgment. Figure skating requires tremendous dedication and skill, but is not a sport. Racing someone down the street is a sport, but that doesn’t mean it’s overly challenging, especially if you have slow friends. Non-sport competitions can be elegant or exciting, and real sports can be boring. It’s not a question of enjoyment, it’s a question of competition.

In our culture, the word ’sport’ has come to be used for anything that anyone plays, from poker to judged dancing. This linguistic laziness lessens the precision of our language. There are plenty of other words for those other competitive activities. Find one that fits and use it.

This article originally appeared at Heretical Ideas. Photo courtesy Reuters Pictures.

About Jon Stonger

Jon Stonger is a novelist and short story writer. His first book, The Adventures of the Delineator: The Slimy and the Sentient, is now available. He currently resides in Suwon City, Korea.

{ 1 trackback }

Manly Things
1 August 2009 at 09:03

{ 7 comments }

1 Triumph 29 July 2009 at 16:15

Let’s also add auto racing into the “not a sport” camp.
The fact that NASCAR fills so much time on “sports” TV is an abomination.
 
Yes, driving 500 miles in heavy traffic is tiring, but it aint no sport.

2 Cargosquid 30 July 2009 at 12:09

If you can smoke and/or drink beer while playing….its not a sport.

3 James Joyner 31 July 2009 at 07:31

If you can smoke and/or drink beer while playing….its not a sport.

Probably a good rule of thumb!

4 kth 1 August 2009 at 13:54

Figure skating isn’t a sport, though it is very demanding, because interpretive beauty is too great a factor. It’s more like the Van Cliburn piano competition than a real sport. But mens gymnastics are mostly about being able to pull off the trick, and even on the women’s side the interpretive stuff only really appears in the floor exercise.

It might be useful to distinguish between subjective aesthetic factors such as whether the performance had a requisite flair or elan, and functional aesthetic factors such as whether the gymnast stuck his landing or the diver made a big splash in the water. The latter qualities, though aesthetic, are fairly easy to make objective, and you could conceivably program a computer to make such judgments. Women’s gymnastics has too much dancing to qualify as a sport, but could easily be reformed (though there’s no sign whatsoever that gymnastics fans want such changes) to be more objective. The awarding of points for subjective aesthetic factors is the dealbreaker, not the mere presence of judges; again, men’s gymnastics is (to me) indisputably a sport.

Contrary to the assertion in the OP, subjective aesthetic judgments are ubiquitous in basketball and football. Computers or robots will never replace the officials in those sports, because a computer is incapable of distinguishing between the four steps taken by Michael Jordan making a layup, and the same four steps taken by someone less graceful or even less famous. Similar considerations invariably obtain in football, though the considerations are aggregate rather than individual–certain calls are made or not made based, not on whether the foul occurred, but whether the beauty and flow of the game would be enhanced or diminished by throwing the flag Of course basketball and football are sports, just that the aspect of subjectivity is a little more complicated than you are allowing.

5 Rick DeMent 1 August 2009 at 14:32

If costumes one wears while competing in any way figure into the score … it’s not a sport.

6 dubliner 4 August 2009 at 13:20

Interesting – by your criteria, Ernest Hemingway was wrong when he declared that there are only three true sports: Mountainclimbing, Auto Racing (on narrow, twisty roads with 1000-foot precipices, not a bunch of 150 MPH parade laps with only left turns) , and Bullfighting (I’d include several rodeo events in this latter category, myself).  I’d say old Ernie set the bar considerably higher on the manliness scale than you have, since one common thread in all of his true sports is there is a significant chance of getting killed while engaging in them.
We’re all wimps now:  Other than Rodeo/Equestrian events and Auto Racing (which has become dangerously un-dangerous lately), can you name even *one* commonly televised major organized sport where there is a really significant chance of getting *killed* in the competition?
Winning and losing really matters in making a sport – we agree on that, but that’s especially true when losing means losing it all, not retreating to a bling-filled home to watch yourself on one of your 12 big-screens by the pool.   Oh, and the definition of a real sport should exclude those sports where only physical freaks can play successfully – Basketball and Football come immediately to mind, as people of ordinary proportions haven’t been drafted in those sports in years now…

7 sam 4 August 2009 at 15:51

Yeah, golf ain’t sport if you can beat the best players in the world with a ripped acl and a broken leg.

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